Marine Corps Gen. John R. Allen, then-commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, listens to U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker in Kabul in 2012. (Musadeq Sadeq / AP)
Crocker was named an Honorary Marine in July 2012, his lapel pinned with the eagle, globe and anchor during a ceremony in Afghanistan. The title, approved exclusively by the commandant of the Marine Corps, honors civilians who have made extraordinary contributions to the service.
One of the most influential diplomats of the past two decades sees great potential for successful long-term U.S. relations with Iraq and Afghanistan, where so many U.S. service members have shed blood.
Retired Ambassador Ryan Crocker, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan during wartime, said the U.S. must remain committed to the countries. The groundwork for positive, ongoing partnerships, which he helped lay, is in place, he said, but will require American commitment.
Now a Kissinger Senior Fellow at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., where he teaches global affairs, Crocker retired from the Foreign Service in 2012 following a four-decade career. Much of that time was spent working alongside Marines who guarded the embassies at which he worked. He survived the April 1983 embassy bombing in Beirut, Lebanon; six months later, 241 American troops were killed when their barracks was bombed.
Crocker has served as ambassador six times: Lebanon (1990-1993), Kuwait (1994-1997), Syria (1998-2001), Pakistan (2004-2007), Iraq (2007-2009) and Afghanistan (2011-2012). In 2002, he helped reopen the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, which had been shuttered for more than a decade.
Q. Having served as ambassador to each, what are your hopes for U.S. relations with Iraq and Afghanistan?
A. We worked hard in both to put in place a long-term architecture for close partnerships. In Iraq, I was the lead negotiator for an agreement that set parameters for our relationship for years to come on security, economic development, trade, education, information technology and cultural exchanges. Last year, President Obama signed a similar agreement in Kabul that’s in many ways similar to ours with Iraq. We’ve never had these kinds of agreements, and it’s very important that we use them as the basis for our relationships.
Q. What concerns you most about each?
A. That we’ll lose focus and interest. We can’t see our relations with Iraq unravel. We can make a difference but have to be determined. I hope we will, because there are all kinds of problems: sectarian tensions, al-Qaida presence, corruption. In Afghanistan, my concerns are really in Pakistan. The persistence of safe havens for Taliban make it hard to render them a decisive defeat. I think Afghan forces can more than hold their own, but the conflict will fester unless Pakistan changes its strategic logic, and I think they should because this is not in their best interest.
Q. From an ambassador’s perspective, how important is it for troops to have cultural training before deploying to a war zone?
A. I just think it’s critical. The unconventional wars we have fought, and will likely be called on to fight again, require our service members to be diplomats as well as soldiers. We don’t focus very much in America on history; others do. And in countries with long histories of foreign occupation, the default tendency is to see any foreign force as an occupying power. Our forces need to be taught this so they can avoid that kind of stigma. I know it’s time-consuming, I know it’s costly, but it is absolutely vital.
Q. What is your most memorable experience working with troops overseas?
A. It was visiting the Marine barracks right after the ’83 bombing. I watched with admiration as a new battalion landing team was brought in immediately to cover for the one almost totally destroyed. I visited Lt. Col. Larry Gerlach, the BLT commander, who was blown through a concrete wall, almost every bone in his body broken. The Marine Amphibious Unit commander carried forward under this unbelievable loss with composure, demonstrating leadership, compassion and organization. It was the Marines’ worst hour, and it was the Marines’ finest hour.
Q. Where do you see opportunities for the State and Defense departments to better work with one another?
A. I would hope we apply lessons learned in Iraq and Afghanistan where on the ground we worked incredibly closely. We need to institutionalize that so there’s a very close linkage between missions and the overall U.S. goals and objectives articulated by the State Department. Commanders and ambassadors have to be the closest of colleagues and associates. Each has to know what the other is doing, and if there are differences, they must be resolved. And they have to be resolved in the field. Nothing gets resolved in Washington.